Twenty-eight years ago, Juanita and I planted a church in a 100-year-old, dilapidated building filled with homeless, crack-addicted men and women. With the guidance of our friend and mentor, Dr. Kirbyjon Caldwell, St. John’s Downtown-Houston has served as an insightful laboratory for learning about the lives of people who would not have affiliated with formal religious structures if not for the culturally relevant experience of this church. St. John’s sits decisively in the progressive camp theologically but, the glue which has held this expression of church together is something stronger than a passing comment, it’s the sense that community is forged in crucible of crisis and for a people who have survived the isolating ravages of slavery, the Coronavirus is not the first crisis facing the black church.
Cornell West recalls the evangelical and pietistic Christian traditions which, he suggests, “began the moment that slaves, laboring in sweltering heat on the plantations owned and ruled primarily by white American Christians, tried to understand their lives and servitude in light of biblical texts, protestant hymns, and Christian testimonies.” Just as the slaves brought their life experiences to bear on early black Christianity, today in the midst of a global pandemic we look for ways to more powerfully connect our current life circumstances with our faith. Rather than resting on the traditional practices of the face-forward, talking-head model which in a month has radically shifted the church experience to streaming, zooming, texting, and instagraming, we must now move ministry to the street level where the pain of poverty, joblessness, and dis-ease awaits. For years St. John’s has served the needs of the poor and homeless in Houston, Texas. Over the past four weeks we have seen three hundred late model cars line up every Wednesday morning for a box of fresh produce during our drive-thru food distribution program. Fourteen tons of food impacting hundreds of families who have been caught completely off guard by what many have called a nightmare is only the beginning of needs based on our experiences with past natural disasters.
While my journey is far from over, serving St. John’s United Methodist Church has been hopefully productive for the people who have needed the church the most: the poor, the marginalized, and the disinherited. In spite of what could be considered a successful ministry in terms of growth, budget, and scope of outreach over the years, St. John’s and every other church will be ultimately evaluated in the wake of this global pandemic on their efforts to help the sheer volume of human despair that will walk through the church’s doors looking for hope and finding Jesus. The United Methodist Church now has an opportunity to demonstrate John Wesley’s Sermon 139, “On Love” where he used the I Corinthian 13:3 scripture to connect our acts of service to a manifestation of love in the midst of serving.
Dr. Rudy Rasmus, is Co-Pastor at St. John’s UMC-Houston with his wife Juanita, and the author of Touch: Pressing against the wounds of a broken world (Harper Collins), Jesus Insurgency (Abingdon), and Love Period (Hachette Book Group). This article is from his upcoming book, “F_ _ _ the Church: The “F” stands for FREE.”